How education can continue in this time of crisis

In an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus infection, all educational institutions were ordered shut from March 18 to 31. Now it has been extended to April 9; it cannot be said if further extension of the closure will not be needed. Some 30 million students in all types of institutions and close to a million teachers and other education personnel in Bangladesh are now confined to their homes obeying the social distancing rule to fight the virus.

According to UNESCO, by March 24, over 130 countries have implemented nationwide closures apart from local shutdowns, impacting over 80 percent of world's student population. Education authorities across the globe are scrambling to handle the unprecedented crisis, looking for immediate measures and trying to understand the longer-term implications.

Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni asked that the lessons for secondary school subjects be broadcast by television starting from Saturday, March 28. The Directorate of secondary and higher education is preparing to start the service. Access to Information (A2I) unit at the Ministry of Science and Technology and other agencies as well as Brac's Education section are expected to collaborate. The public television channel of Bangladesh Television devoted to broadcasting proceedings of the national parliament will be used for the broadcast.

Six to seven lessons every day for the school subjects in grades six to 10 are planned to be offered. Lessons will be recorded in advance by experienced subject teachers. Home work for students will be included and the results will be discussed in the following day's lesson. Trial lessons will be prepared and tried out before starting the regular programme. The Directorate of Primary education is also considering similar broadcast lessons for the primary school classes.

In 2009, when the present Awami League government took over, CAMPE, the civil society education advocate, had appealed for systematic use of the spare BTV channel for education broadcast to supplement classroom instruction. There was no champion with vision and imagination at the policy level to take the idea forward.

The present crisis has jolted the government into action. It is necessary to carry it out effectively and in as user-friendly way as possible. There is also the need to look beyond the emergency response and consider how some necessary innovations can be introduced in the school system.

The measures to make the TV broadcast of lessons attractive and useful are essentially common-sense steps. The following are the three most important points.

Making it attractive: Make the lessons more than just talking heads. Essential elements of a good lesson are known and must be applied. They should be tried out and the room allowed for continuous improvement.

Making it interactive: The format of a TV broadcast limits interactivity. Teachers of schools may be encouraged to view the broadcasts and interact with their own students on the lessons by phone and mail. Can the major mobile phone companies, with the support of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), come up with a solution to provide dedicated telephone lines free of charge for student-teacher interaction on the lessons?

Remembering the context: Given the health and safety emergency, essential messages about health and safety behaviour as well as social isolation for students and parents should be selectively included in the broadcast. Communicating with parents and school teachers should be an element of the broadcasts, providing for specific spots for this purpose.

Other steps moving beyond the emergency are important. Four points deserve serous thought.

Adjusting public examinations: Students and teachers are concerned about the SSC and HSC public examinations which have been postponed temporarily. In UK, the milestone secondary level General Certificate in Education (GCE) has been cancelled this year. Students will receive their certificate based on school examinations and teacher recommendations. This solution would not work in Bangladesh.

The least that can be done is to decide that the public examinations would be simplified and shortened by testing students only on basic subjects of Bangla, English, Math, Science and Social Studies, with one 100-marks test subject for SSC at the end of grade 10. For HSC at the end of grade 12, the same principle can be applied but three or four more subjects may be added for science and social studies.

This would simplify logistics and relieve anxieties of students, teachers and parents. The effect on test validity and learning assessment is likely to be positive and should be considered as part of permanent examination reform. But this may be the subject for more discussion.

Building digital infrastructure for learning: Internet penetration, mainly through smart phone, is reported to have reached at least half the population. But effective use of internet to make a difference for formal education may be less than a quarter of the secondary and tertiary student population in Bangladesh, estimates technology giant Google. Despite various Digital Bangladesh initiatives and progress, these are arguably slower and more uncoordinated than it should be to serve education needs.

Internet in a functional way for learning remains unavailable, inaccessible and unaffordable to the large majority of people, especially in the rural areas. Practical technological solutions exist and can be available if the various actors—mobile phone service providers, large technology companies, and facilitating and regulatory agencies—agree to work together taking a longer-term view.

Working purposefully with technology providers: Tencent, the largest internet service platform in China and one of the largest in the world, and sponsor of the Yidan Education Prize Foundation, have demonstrated how students and teacher can be connected remotely and productively when 120 million students in China were confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tencent and Yidan Foundation propose to bring technology solutions to educational systems struggling with the impact of the pandemic. They intend to participate in UNESCO's global response to the crisis and invite its prize awardees to join. Brac education programme is a recipient of the 2020 Yidan prize for education development.

Fighting digital divide in learning: As ICT-based learning has become more widely available, equity in access and realising its benefits by those disadvantaged in different ways have become a growing concern. Indeed, those of a privileged socio-economic status or intellectually better endowed are the ones who gain most from the digital technologies. Those who need most help are the ones left out and behind, thus further widening the digital divide.

The broader perspective of equitable participation and learning outcome need to be the guide for technology-based innovations in the education system. Let adversity turn into opportunity to this end.


Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.



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